How to Field an Interview Curveball

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sometimes Mark Chalfant asks applicants to bring a visual representation of themselves to auditions. Or he asks what their worst habit is. Sometimes he fishes with the catchall query, "Is there anything about you that no one would expect?"

As executive director of the Washington Improv Theater, Chalfant uses interview tactics that work in his artistic milieu. But investment banks, biotech firms, media companies and start-ups also are throwing out strange and offbeat job interview questions as they consider which MBA or project manager to hire.

They ask questions such as, "If you had only six months to live, what would you do with the time?" and "What animal would you say you most compare to, and why?" Or, "In the news story on your life, what would the headline be?"

Those queries and others, compiled by Lynne A. Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston, are showing up more frequently in interviews this year, she and others report.

Although inquiries about what kind of food you would be might seem a bit off-base, most have a purpose. As job candidates become more polished, interviewers want to "chip some holes in that prepared facade and see what's underneath," Sarikas said. "Catch them a little off guard and see how they think."

Melissa S. Fireman, chief executive of Washington Career Services, sees other benefits to employers. "People want to probe on your creative and analytical skills," she said.

They might also want to test your ability to react quickly or to handle stress. She remembers an interview in which she was asked to show a PowerPoint presentation. The pointer wasn't working.

"I have the feeling they took out the batteries, just to see how I would react," she said. (She used the computer mouse instead.)

Don't forget to be well-rehearsed for more traditional tough questions. "The first thing I tell our students is to be super-prepared for all the expected questions. The better prepared you are for those, the more confident you will be," Sarikas said. "It also frees up some brain cells for the other things."

Remember: Most of these oddball questions don't have a right or wrong answer.

Chalfant said, "Work, just like any place, is filled with surprises. Employers want to see that you're not going to shut down or freak out. Breathing helps if you're really panicked."

He has other advice, based partly on improv techniques.

"Think about the question and open your mouth and let something come out -- don't constrain yourself to the perfect answer," he said.

And make it a dialogue -- ask a question about the question. Try to understand where the interviewers are coming from or what they want to unearth with that bizarre question.

Candidates sometimes forget the power of honesty and humor in the stress of selling themselves, Chalfant said. A little humor cuts tension and helps connect with the interviewer.

"In the high stakes of a job interview, people tend to get so tense that they get so locked down in their heads," he said.

If humor won't work, maybe you could turn the question back at the interviewer -- a tactic that buys time and can show some chutzpah. If asked, "What's the worst thing you've ever done as an employee?" Chalfant suggests you reply: "What's the worst thing the organization has done?"

If you are truly stuck, take a deep breath and say, "Let me take a moment to think about that one." This works especially well for introverts, Fireman said.

If no good answer comes to you, you have options. The first: Wing it and talk through your thinking, so the employer sees your thought processes. Another: Politely pass, or offer to answer later.

Say something like, "I've never thought of that, let me mull it over and get back to you." Then respond later in the interview or in a follow-up e-mail.

"This is better than completely blowing it, but it does not show an ability to think on your feet," Sarikas said.

And remember: You need to be honest, because that's what the employer wants to see.

"Acting is the worst thing you can do," Chalfant said -- and that's from someone who hires actors. So when asked about your animal nature, go with a mouse or a panda if you feel that way, even if a cheetah or lion sound tougher.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company